Has genocide been happening in either Israel or Gaza? On both, Americans are split

Jamie BallardData Journalist
January 19, 2024, 10:52 PM GMT+0

A hearing earlier this month at the top United Nations court — the International Court of Justice in The Hague — sought to determine whether Israel is acting with “genocidal intent” in Gaza. South Africa brought the case against Israel, with representatives from South Africa arguing that the words of Israeli leaders signified genocidal intent and that systemic acts of genocide had been carried out. Israel's representatives denied the allegations, claiming that the country sought not to destroy a people but to protect its own people. They also argued that there is a lack of evidence of “genocidal intent.”

A full ruling in the case could be years away. Today, American opinion is split — both on whether treatment of Palestinians in Gaza constitute a genocide and whether treatment of Jewish people in Israel does. A November 21 - 29, 2023 YouGov survey asked Americans about how they define a genocide and whether they believe Jewish people in Israel and Arabs in the Gaza Strip are the victims of genocide. Among the findings: Young Americans are more likely than older ones to say Arabs in the Gaza Strip are the victims of genocide.

Among Americans, 39% say what’s happening to Jewish people in Israel is a genocide. Fewer (32%) say it is not and the remaining 29% are unsure.

About one-third (34%) of Americans say what’s happening to Arabs in the Gaza Strip is a genocide. A similar share (32%) say it is not, while 35% are unsure.

Among four major adult age groups — under 30, 30 to 44, 45 to 64, and 65 and older — Americans between 30 and 44 years old are the least likely to say that what’s currently happening to Jewish people in Israel is a genocide (26%). Within each of the three older and younger age groups, at least 42% say it is a genocide.

Among adults under 30, the majority (55%) say what’s happening to Arabs in the Gaza Strip is a genocide. That opinion is shared by much smaller proportions of older age groups: 33% of 30- to 44-year-olds, 26% of 45- to 64-year-olds, and 27% of people 65 and older.

There are partisan differences: Republicans (51%) are more likely than Independents (34%) or Democrats (34%) to say what’s happening to Jewish people in Israel is a genocide, while Democrats (51%) are more likely than Independents (29%) and Republicans (20%) to say this about what is happening to Arabs in the Gaza Strip.

As with all surveys, the wording of questions may have affected the findings. An experiment conducted in a followup survey this month looked specifically at how the situation in Gaza was described. A randomly selected half of respondents were shown the same text as in the original survey: "Arabs in the Gaza Strip (2023 - present)." The other half were shown: "Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (2023 - present)." The survey results showed that nearly two months after the original survey, little had changed in American opinion about whether Arabs in the Gaza Strip were experiencing genocide: 32% say they are. But 40% say Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are experiencing genocide. The difference is equally large among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. But there are differences by age: The wording change has no effect among adults under 30, while increasing the share of people 65 and older who characterize the events as genocide by 18 percentage points.

YouGov’s survey also asked Americans about other historical events and whether they consider these events to be genocide.

Three-quarters (72%) of U.S. adult citizens believe that the way Jewish people were treated in Europe between 1939 and 1945 — the Holocaust, though the question didn't use that name — to be a genocide; 7% say it was not a genocide and 22% are not sure. An Economist/YouGov Poll conducted two weeks after this one found that 77% of U.S. adult citizens either tend to disagree or strongly disagree that the Holocaust is a myth; 7% agree and 16% neither agree nor disagree.

A majority (56%) also consider the way Native Americans were treated in North America between the 15th and 19th centuries to be a genocide. Around half (47%) think the way the Tutsi, moderate Hutu, and Twa were treated in Rwanda in 1994 constitutes a genocide.

Open-ended questions shed some light on why some people say the Holocaust was not a genocide, or are unsure. A follow-up question on the November 21 - 29 survey asked how people define genocide. Some respondents who said the Holocaust was not a genocide provided the following definitions:

  • “An attempt to kill members of a certain group in order to ethnically cleanse an area.”
  • “A group of individuals that get together to take down another group.”
  • “Genocide is a very serious and tragic thing. It refers to the deliberate and systematic extermination of a particular group of people based on their ethnicity, religion, or nationality. It's a terrible thing that should never happen.”

Among respondents who were unsure whether the Holocaust was a genocide, definitions of genocide included the following:

  • “Extreme deaths and destruction of a nation.”
  • “The deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.”.

In a separate survey conducted November 28 - December 1, 2023, respondents who said the Holocaust was not a genocide were asked specifically why they gave that response. Their reasons included:

  • “10-40 million Russians also died under Stalin before, during and after WW2.”
  • “It's not clear that their ultimate goal was to completely destroy the Jewish population.”
  • “Because the media has been reporting on the millions and millions and millions of murdered Jews throughout history. With [a]ll of the reported murders, the race/religion should be non-existent, and yet their numbers had exploded.”

Respondents who said the treatment of several other groups wasn't genocide were also asked for the thinking behind their responses. Among those who said Native Americans were not the victims of genocide, some said:

  • “Because I do not believe that the goal was to eradicate Native Americans, which is a definitional requirement for genocide.”
  • “Because the Native American people had attacked, killed and kidnapped many colonists on the east coast before the settlers started moving west. Much of the attacking by the Native American people in the West was done by young braves and others who did not want the settlers there.”
  • “The Native Americans were not lined up and walked into gas chambers or shot. They were being relocated. Sickness and cold followed with death. If they would have been peaceful, they would have shared and stayed on the land.”

(Quotes were edited for spelling and grammar and may not be representative of all responses.)

There are partisan splits on several of these events.

Republicans (77%) are more likely than Democrats (70%) or Independents (68%) to say that what happened to Jewish people during World War II was a genocide.

Democrats (72%) are more likely than Independents (54%) and Republicans (42%) to see what happened to Native Americans as a genocide. About half (48%) of Democrats — along with 33% of Independents and 36% of Republicans — believe what’s happening to Ukrainians in Ukraine is a genocide. Democrats are also more likely to say that Muslims in Bosnia in 1995 were the victims of genocide (47%); Independents and Republicans are less likely to say this, at 33% each. Democrats (42%) are also more likely than Independents (26%) and Republicans (21%) to say that what is happening to Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is a genocide.

There are also some age splits: 80% of people 65 and older regard the treatment of Jewish people during the Holocaust as a genocide, fewer 45- to 64-year-olds (75%), 30-to 44-year-olds (70%) and adults under 30 (57%) share this view. Adults 65 and older are also more likely to regard the treatment of Cambodians under Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 as a genocide, at 61%. Fewer 45- to 64-year-olds (46%), 30- to 44-year-olds (33%) and 18- to 29-year-olds (32%) say the same.

Followup surveys conducted to learn more about the factors affecting Americans' characterization of events as genocide also asked again whether certain events are genocides. The results show that these estimates can change over time, in part because of the margin of error inherent to any survey estimate. In particular, the November 28 - December 1, 2023 survey found that 79% of Americans consider the Holocaust to be genocide and 48% say the same about the treatment of Cambodians under Khmer Rouge — 7 and 5 percentage points higher, respectively, than the original estimates.

YouGov’s survey also asked people how they personally define a genocide. Many responses are similar to the United Nations’ definition of genocide, which encompasses any of the following measures targeting members of a group: killing, causing serious injury, imposing conditions that would destroy them or their ability to reproduce, or forcibly removing children.

Below are a few of the responses YouGov received from American adults.

— Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik contributed to this article


See the results for the following YouGov polls:

Methodology: The YouGov polls were conducted online, each one among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. They were conducted on November 21 - 29, 2023; November 28 - December 1, 2023; and January 12 - 17, 2024. The following methodology applies to each survey: Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample for each survey is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (Dan Kitwood)